Word of the Day / Shafan: Don't Turn Yourself Into a Hyrax!

Biblical confusion about two furry animals still carries over today, with the hyrax winning out as the symbol of cowardice in Hebrew.

The verb lehishtafen (le-hish-ta-FEN), means to turn tail. To be cowardly. But literally the word means to turn oneself into a hyrax.

So how did being a hyrax become a stand-in for such an insult?

The Hebrew word for the hyrax, a small, furry mammal who may resemble a guinea pig but whose closest relative is the elephant, is shafan. It is mentioned twice in the Bible, once in relation to kashrut laws (it isn’t kosher) and once in an allegory in the Book of Proverbs: “The conies are but a feeble folk, yet make they their houses in the rocks.” (30:26)

In the King James’ Bible, “conies” is used as another name for rabbits but this translation is an error carried over from earlier translations of the Bible into Greek and Aramaic and later Latin.

But how do we know that shafan is not a rabbit but rather a hyrax (which by the way have no tails to speak of)? Well, the Arabic word thafan and the biblical description give us clues.  Rabbinical Bible scholars debated the correct translation: The European rabbis usually stuck with "rabbit", as there were no hyraxes in northern Europe; the rabbis in the Arabic speaking world translated shafan into "hyrax."

Secular books in 19th century Central and Eastern Europe perpetuated the mistranslation, with nearly all writers using shafan to describe rabbits rather than the correct Hebrew word, arnav.

One such writer was Kalman Schulman, who translated Eugene Sue’s "The Mysteries of Paris" into Hebrew in 1857, only the second novel to appear in Hebrew. It was a great success at the time, selling 2,000 copies. In his translation, Schulman described the character Rudolf, a German prince, as “a coward and soft-hearted like a shafan.”

This simile was new to Hebrew, and it didn't appear in the original French either. Schulman took it from the German expression “feige wie ein Hase" (“Cowardly like a hare”), which was quite common then. It was likely adopted from Aesop's Fables, which were gaining popularity at the time, and in which hares are often characterized as cowardly.

Since "The Mysteries of Paris" was published in Hebrew, the word shafan has been used as a synonym for coward. In the mid-20th century it was turned into a verb “lehishtafen,” which, we showed earlier, literally means to turn oneself into a hyrax but is commonly used to accuse someone of acting like a coward.

Today, Hebrew speakers know to use shafan when they mean hyrax and arnav when they mean rabbit or hare. But the mix up still persists in the verb "lehishtafen” and in some phrases like, “To pull a shafan out of a hat” despite the fact that we mean a rabbit. And an experimental guinea pig is a shafan nisionot, a mistranslation from the German versuchskaninchen (experimental rabbit).

D Gordon Robertson
Haim Taragan